Brangelina: Namibia's Biggest Game
Sunday, May 28, 2006
There's an elephant in Namibia. Actually, there's more than one elephant trudging through the bush in Namibia's Etosha National Park, but this particular elephant is more protected than even the most endangered species -- and has better abs.
What's going on in Namibia these days isn't much of a secret: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's decision to have their baby there. While you don't have to be a National Enquirer subscriber to know that at this point (just able to read or operate a TV remote), the question on the lips of a puzzled world, excluding National Geographic junkies, is what's so great about Namibia?
Sensing potential for a third-trimester tourism craze, I embarked on a four-day "Should I have my baby in Namibia?" road trip. I wanted to uncover the good, the bad and the prenatal of this once-unloved part of the world -- and maybe spot the parents-to-be in the process.
Because I'm not an A-list personality, I must take a bus north from my home in Cape Town, South Africa. Eight hundred miles and 26 hours later, I arrive in the Namibian capital of Windhoek, where I spend my first night curled up in a youth hostel called the Cardboard Box. Despite its name, the Box provides all of the trappings of your average youth hostel, complete with bunk beds, barren whitewashed walls and a bathroom to share.
Brangelina is nowhere to be seen.
* * *
While the celebrity couple appears to be undergoing a personal African reinvention, so too is their country of choice.
After decades of strife and struggle, peace came to this region in 1990. U.N. Resolution 435 paved the way for the nation's transition to independence when the colonial South West Africa was reinvented as the Republic of Namibia. The transformation ended a tumultuous and often brutally repressive century of colonial rule that began with the arrival of German settlers at the end of the 19th century and was later maintained under South African control.
So far, peace has allowed for relative, yet uneven, economic growth but hasn't yielded any financial boon. Namibia's geography doesn't help. More than twice the size of California, it has immense swaths of unforgiving terrain that remain largely unoccupied by its 2 million inhabitants, making Namibia one of the world's least densely populated countries.
In Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, however, Namibian officials believe the country's moment has finally arrived, and that the birth of the One will prove that tourism is the ticket to development for this adolescent nation of paradoxes. Rich in diamonds and uranium, the country is plagued by high unemployment, one of the greatest disparities of wealth in the world, and the rising specter of HIV/AIDS.
An ad posted over Windhoek's Independence Avenue proclaims that "Local Is Global," adding to the feeling that Namibia is aching to be discovered, to join the global dance and become a destination, not just an aid-receiving afterthought. To do so, it seems willing to continue an extreme makeover, whether designating English the official language, building luxury hotels to woo discriminating tourists or simply providing privacy for discriminating celebrities.
Eager to get to the bottom of Namibia Fever, I hire 25-year-old Benjamin Batista, a former cabbie, to give me a tour. We pass by a Windhoek shopping mall with banners saying "Pardon us while we reinvent ourselves." If they could make a sign big enough, it could apply to the nation as a whole.